Can you build houses out of pixels and bytes?

3D Twin Estonia

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How powerful must digital tools be to build houses out of pixels and bytes? This is a trick question. 

What digitalisation can do is allow a totally new way of sharing data between members of the construction sector. The Estonian building sector is facing such a revolution. Novel building permit processes in the Estonian Building Registry (EHR), 3D model of the built environment in Estonia, and startups targeting the construction sector lead the way.

BIM as the backbone

Building information modelling (BIM) is the backbone of the new way of working. BIM is an intelligent 3D model-based process for planning, designing, constructing, and managing buildings and infrastructure. Currently, Estonian Building Registry (EHR) is introducing BIM as one of the key changes in their process of a thorough make-over.

Technical inspection is time-consuming + error-prone

The motivation for doing this is simple. Technical inspection of the building design documentation (compliance with zoning plans, laws, and regulations) is one of the most time-consuming and error-prone activities during the processing of building permits. Currently, EHR supports uploading of digital project documentation in simple 2D formats (e.g. PDF) which are much less structured and data-rich compared to BIM models.

If any part of the project needs to be updated, the reviewers will have to go through the full documentation again. The resource-wasting effect of the problem is considerable, as more than 12 thousand building permits and more than 8,600 usage permits are processed in Estonia each year, while not a single project has allegedly passed the procedure without any revisions.

The new software development will simplify the permitting process by making it possible to submit BIM projects for building permits directly. No need to first convert them to “digital paper”. This will shorten the building permit processing time by automating the technical inspection of construction designs.

Potential is huge

One could obviously wonder what is the effect of a change in digitalising such a professionally marginal field as the planning process. The potential consequences, however, could be huge. Similar to the revolution brought along by switching to CAD in other industries (such as aeronautics, automotive, etc.) which lead to massive changes in those industries through modularity, outsourcing, and co-engineering. BIM is expected to trigger significant improvement potential indirect costs, quality, delays, and security along the full construction value chain from design to destruction. Eventually, other elements such as drones or even construction engines could be connected to the BIM-based registry. Consequently, a report by Oliver Wyman, a strategy advisor, estimates 15-25% of savings throughout a construction project’s life cycle.

3D twin

Furthermore, a solution that is of interest to a wider range of people was launched by EHR this March. It is a digital copy of the built environment in Estonia that helps to analyse, simulate and visualise changes related to the built environment. The 3D twin consists of two models:

  1. Three-dimensional models of buildings based on the data of the Building Register
  2. More detailed building models created on the basis of drone-made laser measurements obtained by the Land Board

The new digital tool allows you to see in a three-dimensional view, for example, how the building fits into the existing environment, what constraints should be taken into account when planning the building, and how shadows fall on the building. The 3D twin proves to be a good helper in making decisions and carrying out procedures concerning the built environment, for both a real estate developer or a person looking for a new home. For a person who wants peace and quiet, it is definitely important to know if and how a major business development will be built in the neighbourhood of the desired house.

Underground communications such as various pipelines and cables will be added to the map application soon. According to current plans, all services of the old EHR will be transferred to the new system by the end of 2022.

Hackathon for the “brick and mortar” industry

In the wake of these digital icebreakers implemented by the public sector, the private sector is eager to make the best use of them and bring new solutions to the market. In September 2020, the Garage48 hackathon specialised in construction brought together nearly 150 experts from more than 10 countries to develop digital solutions.

The winning Werk application came up with a solution that targets one of the lingering problems of the construction industry: verbal agreements. We have all experienced the dissatisfaction that arises from the contractors not understanding fully our desires during renovation or building. Werk aims to solve this problem by automatically generating a smart contract based on the job description.

Martin Kalamees, team leader for Werk, stated that their ambition is to revolutionise the building sector all over Europe by creating an all-inclusive solution for construction workforce administration.

“In addition to facilitating communication between a client and a contractor, this allows project managers to choose the workforce and employees to choose their projects,” Mr. Kalamees explained.

Startups targeting an old-school sector

At the hackathon, several other promising and much-needed solutions were noticed that all related to the BIM. For example, SupplyCon team is aiming at streamlining communication between main contractors and subcontractors, where quality control, orders, and cash flow are managed through the BIM model; AR-evate helps to calculate the material cost and cost of construction works using the possibilities of augmented reality; and ITM (Initial Task Monitoring) application digitizes the design process from initial task of the client to documentation, again relying on BIM system.

These startups signal the importance of digital infrastructure even in an old-school sector like construction. In addition to adding value to existing processes, digitalisation allows the creation of totally new ways of operating that cut costs and save nerves.

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Written by
Peeter Vihma

social scientist at the university of helsinki and the estonian university of life sciences


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